Film

Robert Kramer Motors Through the American Mind in the Epic “Route 1/U.S.A.”

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In Route 1/U.S.A. (1989), a four-hour-plus impression of America at the tail end of a conservative decade, director Robert Kramer embarks on a highway voyage from the Canadian border to Key West, Florida, making stops along the path to process the personalities, industries, and urgencies animating the towns and cities he passes through. Kramer, who died in 1999 at the age of sixty, approaches these subjects not as a sociologist collecting data but as a gentle wanderer, curious about what he sees and — poignantly — frequently not seeming to understand any of it. While an elderly phone operator at a lumber company in Fort Kent, Maine, senses destruction in the air (she states flatly, “We’re living in the last days”), an enthused Pat Robertson supporter in New Hampshire feels uplift (“Now I see the heart of the country moving”).

Kramer can be heard and felt hovering near the camera, but he built the movie around the fictional onscreen surrogate “Doc” (played by Paul McIsaac). Recently arrived in America after ten years of working as a doctor in Africa, Doc accompanies Kramer on the trek, engaging with people but also sometimes just musing. Doc’s expat backstory mirrors the life of Kramer, who left the States in ’79 to work in Europe; from their sense of remove flows the movie’s melancholy, mystery, and occasional unease. On the bingo floor of a community center, leaning against a wall and watching the aged crowd stamp their cards, Doc recalls the joy the game brought his mother. “It makes me feel warm, sort of,” he notes, “but also sort of really angry, because it’s all that people have.” In this moment, and others, Doc’s face carries an almost irreconcilable mixture of love, pain, and confusion.

The men observe a belligerent Christian minister who seethes with disgust for parents who don’t physically discipline their children (“wear ’em out” is his phrase for a beating); members of his congregation picket outside a women’s-health center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. If Kramer’s fascination with these scary mouthpieces of conservatism telegraph a leftist shading, he also goes out of his way to diminish the nobility of his onscreen stand-in. Mid-movie, Doc confesses that he subsisted heavily on drugs and alcohol while practicing in Africa — perhaps an understandable response to “war, bombed-out hospitals, cities burning in the sun” (Kramer’s words, in the narration).

Kramer, perhaps slightly mellowed by age, invests a lot of his creative energy not in taking sides but in discovering the rhymes and rhythms of American life. Documenting the labor of a group of tree-cutters, he inserts a startling cut from a chainsaw grinding through a trunk to the torn jeans and sliced-open shin of one of the workers — a graphic transition that spells out a kind of volley of violence.

But other of Kramer’s juxtapositions are crueler and less poetic, like one
sequence that intercuts a newly married teenager explaining a crime for which he was falsely accused with a public defender–turned–juvenile prosecutor offering a self-aggrandizing tour of his lush Bridgeport, Connecticut, property. As the prosecutor goes on and on talking up his home (“It’s fantastic”) and his daily toil (“I live a totally schizophrenic existence”), Kramer reminds us of the indignities that spurred the director and his doctor stand-in to leave America in the first place. In most scenes, Kramer and Doc’s outside-in perspective engenders an aura of reflection, but smugness has no expiration date: After the prosecutor delivers a preening line about his efforts to balance work and life and then asks, “Want to cut it right there?,” Kramer keeps right on rolling.

Route 1/U.S.A.

Directed by Robert Kramer

Screens at BAMcinématek on March 26 as part of the “Migrating Forms” series

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